Company Sergeant Major John Robert Osborn VC from gave his life for his comrades, being posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross, Canada’s first of the second world war. The Battle of Hong Kong was lost before it started. The politicians knew it, the generals knew it, and the officers and soldiers knew it.
The Allied forces valiantly resisted the Japanese during the Battle of Hong Kong: 14,000 British, Canadian, Indian, and Hong Kong soldiers. On December 8, 1941, 52,000 Japanese soldiers invaded Hong Kong’s New Territories. The Canadian troops: The Winnipeg Grenadiers, and The Royal Rifles of Canada, had only been in Hong Kong six weeks and lacked experience and equipment.
The Allied forces withdrew to Hong Kong Island. On December 17, with two requests for surrender ignored, the Japanese assaulted the island, splitting the allied forces in two.
The Winnipeg Grenadiers fought at the Wong Nai Chung Gap. Company Sergeant Major John Robert Osborn VC, a Canadian and veteran of the First World War, and his men captured a hill from the Japanese but withdrew after reinforcements arrived. Osborn covered the retreat of those in his charge. In a new position, they came under renewed attack.
Company Sergeant Major Osborn’s citation for bravery, published in The London Gazette, in April 1946 reads:
During the afternoon the company was cut off from the battalion and completely surrounded by the enemy, who were able to approach to within grenade throwing distance of the slight depression which the company was holding. Several enemy grenades were thrown which Company Sergeant-Major Osborn picked up and threw back. The enemy threw a grenade which landed in a position where it was impossible to pick it up and return it in time. Shouting a warning to his comrades this gallant Warrant Officer threw himself on the grenade which exploded, killing him instantly. His self-sacrifice undoubtedly saved the lives of many others.
Company Sergeant-Major Osborn was an inspiring example to all throughout the defence which he assisted so magnificently in maintaining against an overwhelming enemy force for over eight and a half hours, and in his death he displayed the highest quality of heroism and self-sacrifice.
Company Sergeant-Major Osborn was awarded the Victoria Cross, the highest military award in the British Commonwealth. It was the only VC awarded during the battle of Hong Kong, and Canada’s first of the war. Osborn’s body was never recovered. A statute of Osborn (above) graces Hong Kong Park, a former British garrison. There is also a marker in the area where he died.
The Battle of Hong Kong was over less than a week after Sergeant-Major Osborn’s death. It was Christmas Day when the Colonial Governor surrendered to the Japanese. A cynic would call Osborn’s death pointless: Men saved only to live a hellish existence in POW camps. I’m not a cynic. Giving your life for your nation may be patriotic, giving it for your comrades is a sacrifice that cannot be reproached.